Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end turned convicted murderer, was found dead this morning in his prison cell in Massachusetts. Just a few days ago, he had been acquitted on a second set of murder charges.
Under Massachusetts law, Aaron Hernandez is now not guilty – even of the charge on which he was convicted. In Minnesota, he would (probably) be entitled to the same outcome.
Massachusetts law provides for a doctrine called abatement ab initio. What it means is that a defendant whose case isn’t final – whether because they haven’t been convicted or because their case is being appealed – is legally considered as guiltless as if he had never been charged. Abatement has been applied in a handful of high-profile Massachusetts cases, such as that of John Salvi, who committed suicide after being convicted of murdering two women at an abortion clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1994, and John Geoghan, a former Catholic priest who was murdered in prison in 2003 after being convicted of sexually abusing children. Both had their convictions wiped away. Hernandez’s murder conviction was on an automatic appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, so his conviction should be abated as well.
Minnesota’s adoption of the rule is quite recent, having taken place only in 2013. In State v. Burrell, the Minnesota Supreme Court abated the conviction for forgery of one Mark Myrl Burrell, who had been living as his brother Steven (and Steven living as Mark) for over a decade. After Steven died, the switch came to the attention of the authorities, and Mark was charged with forgery. He was convicted but appealed. Just after the case was argued to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Mark’s attorney was notified that Mark had died. Mark’s attorney then filed a motion to abate the prosecution ab initio. The Court of Appeals denied the motion and even dismissed the appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that abatement ab initio is the law in Minnesota, though it left for another day the question of what happens when restitution is owed, which it was not in Burrell.
Most states, and all of the federal circuit courts of appeals, apply the doctrine. As a result, there are a few very famous examples of the application of abatement. Probably the most notable is that of Ken Lay, the former CEO and chairman of Enron, who died after being found guilty but before being sentenced on security fraud charges.
Criminal law often involves results which are distasteful and may seem unjust. As the Minnesota Supreme Court explained in Burrell, however, “‘the interests of justice ordinarily require that [a defendant] not stand convicted without resolution of the merits of an appeal’ because resolution of an appeal is an integral part of our criminal justice system for finally adjudicating guilt or innocence.” Burrell, 837 N.W.2d 459, 467 (Minn. 2013) (quoting United States v. Wright, 160 F.3d 905, 908). Abatement exists to protect the rights of criminal defendants whose deaths prevent them from defending their cases as far as the law allows.